By Alec Laube
Prison overcrowding is a nationwide problem especially bad in California. In an attempt to lower prison costs and actually help those that would end up in jail, several federal courts have offered certain low-level offenders the opportunity to begin a rehab program, rather than spend many years in jail. This is an attempt to solve the problems that face those convicted of lower level crimes, rather than shunning them by putting them behind bars for years and all but forcing them to start from scratch upon release.
This “pre-trial diversion program” is being offered in about 12 federal district courts. It consists of offering certain defendants the opportunity to enroll in rehab programs and to have their trial suspended until either completion or failure of the program. If they succeed in completing the program, they are only sentenced to probation with no time behind bars. Note that the rehab program also requires them to show progress of some sort towards rehabilitation, such as gaining proper employment. Therefore, the diversion program is much like a regular probation period, with the addition of a rehab program.
There are two reasons that these programs will see backing, the economic benefits and the fact that this system promotes reform and rehabilitation rather than punishment. Economically, this program will save cost in the long run. Jails cost a lot of money and the people of California recognize this, hence the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014. Prop. 47 changed several low-level felonies into misdemeanors, including several lesser rug charges in order to prevent prison overcrowding. Overcrowded prisons cost our taxpayers far too much. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Wolfe, the pilot program has saved taxpayers at least $2 million in prison costs. Granted, this is over about a five-year period, but every dollar saved is important. If the program continues to spread throughout the country, we’re sure to see even larger savings.
While there are few critics of the new program, I feel they are simply reiterating the arguments that were made in opposition of Prop. 47. Many expressed fears of being too lax on crime and allowing criminals to receive shorter sentences. However, the potential benefits clearly outweigh these potential harms.
Another reason that this rehab program is beneficial is that it fights against the stigma that the state creates “career criminals.” Rather than putting offenders in prison, this program gives participants an opportunity for offenders to get their lives back on track. Our current policy is to put those convicted of these non-violent crimes in prison for long sentences. When they get out, the world has changed so much that they no longer have any positive base to help them rehabilitate. With these changes, a positive base is emphasized, creating a good environment for the defendants so that they don’t feel the need to resort to illegal activity again. This is evidenced by the huge success rate of the program in Los Angeles County, 79 out of 88, or nearly 90 percent. This program gives former inmates a chance to live their lives positively. This new system has merit and deserves a chance to see the long term effects from a larger sample size. The outlook is good right now and if it continues this way, the way we prosecute lower-level crimes in the United States might be changed throughout the nation.